President Vladimir Putin has elevated Moscow’s ambassador in Damascus to become his special representative for Syria as signs emerge of unruliness in the alliance between the two countries, undermining Russia’s drive to consolidate its gains.
Loyalist media in Damascus and Moscow reported on Monday that Alexander Efimov has been appointed Special Representative of the Russian President for the Development of Relations with the Syrian Arab Republic.
Mr Efimov will be pulling on behalf of his boss a short-of-bewildering array of strings tied to the country’s complex societal mix-up and the regional and international powers involved in the nine-year conflict.
An Arabic speaker, the 62-year old diplomat will also be managing Russia’s surrogates in Damascus. But the Syrian regime has been adept at making the most of its position as the meeting point between Russia and Iran and playing on contradictions between the two countries.
Some Russian media outlets have lately accused Syrian officials of incompetence. The criticism prompted public denunciations of Russia in Syrian regime areas for the first time since Moscow intervened militarily to prop President Bashar Al Assad up in late 2015.
Ayman Adel Nour, a prominent Syrian political commentator, said the appointment of Mr Efimov helps streamline the chain of command reporting to Mr Putin with regard to Syria and “signals annoyance with the Syrian regime”.
"By appointing Efimov as his viceroy, Mr Putin is telling the regime to get its act together," Mr Abdel Nour told The National from the United States.
The Russian intervention five years ago restored swathes of Sunni rebel territory to the control of the regime in Damascus, killing thousands of civilians, according to Syrian human rights campaigners, but failing to instil peace on Moscow’s terms.
Russian officials are involved in everything from promoting their confidants in the Syrian security apparatus to counter Iranian influence, to forming new proxies, and forging ties with Kurdish militia largely allied with the US in northern Syria, as well as armed Druze actors in the south of the country.
An economic dividend promoted by Russia has not materialised, damaging a regime drive supported by Moscow to lure back refugees to “the bosom of the homeland” and raise pressure on Western and Arab countries to pay for reconstruction.
Understandings with Turkey on sharing the spoils in northern Syria have frayed and US forces still control most of Syria’s oil fields.
Europe has kept a fairly united position on reconstruction despite Russian pressure, refusing to finance any significant rebuilding without what continental powers view as a serious political solution.
Russia has had to concede significant ground control to Iran, which has more lethal militia allies on the ground than Assad loyalists aligned with Moscow. Tehran has been also supplying regime energy costing of billions of dollars annually and wants its own payback.
Intensification in recent weeks of Israeli air strikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria, with little objection from Moscow, have further undermined the Russia-Iranian equilibrium in Syria, although Iran's overall sphere of influence in Syria appears to be holding tight.
A collapse of the Syrian pound and little hard currency flows from Russia, as well as criticism in Russian media of the economic management of the Syrian regime, appear to dent the projected invincibility of the alliance.
The Syrian pound has fallen from 50 to the dollar on the eve of the Syrian revolt against Assad family rule in March 2011, to 1,650 now.
Russia’s ties in Syria date to the 1950s, when the country began to lean toward the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
A 1963 coup brought mostly Alawite officers to power and destroyed Syria’s communists. But Moscow cultivated ties with the country’s new junta.
Among them was Hafez Al Assad, who trained on MiG fighter jets in Russia and became defence minister before mounting his own coup in 1970, ushering five decades of Assad family rule.
As ambassador to Syria since 2018, Mr Efimov has been promoting Moscow’s line that the conflict in the country pits a legitimate regime against terrorists.
Mr Efimov told the Russian outlet Sputnik last month that Western calls on the United Nations to channel aid into Syria through border crossing not controlled by the regime undermined the country’s sovereignty.
He also dismissed human rights advocates calling to release Syrian political prisoners held by the regime, to at least shield them from the coronavirus, as they are, in his words, “opponents of the legal Syrian authorities” who are "deliberately making use of the situation around the pandemic of the deadly disease to implement their well-known goals”.
Days after Mr Efimov renewed Russia’s support for the regime a rift within its innermost circle broke into the open.
The president moved against his maternal cousin, the billionaire Rami Makhlouf, who regional financiers say is the ruling family’s moneyman. They said the president could not have moved against Mr Makhlouf without the support of Maher Al Assad, Bashar’s brother, who is the de facto commander of the regime’s military.
The feud forced Russia into an even more micromanagement role of Syria.
Reports emerged of Russian military police accompanying Syrian secret police in the arrest of some of Mr Makhlouf’s business managers and the seizure of his assets.
The Russian state owned RT television channel deleted from its website an interview the channel had done with a dissident Syrian businessman who said Mr Makhlouf’s father, Mohammad Makhlouf, who is in Moscow, used to receive commissions on Syria’s state oil sales, before he moved to Russia in the last decades.
Mr Makhlouf has in the last few weeks posted three Facebook videos calling the Syrian security apparatus an instrument of repression and hinting that targeting him damages the Alawite sect, which has dominated the state since the 1960s.
Some in the Syrian opposition say Mr Makhlouf could not be doing such public relations damage to the Assads from inside Syria and that he must have already fled abroad.
But Mr Abdel Nour said Moscow has an interest in keeping Mr Makhlouf's room for manoeuvre inside the country.
“The Russians have made it clear there is a ceiling to how much the regime can act against Rami,” Mr Abdel Nour said. “They are preventing his arrest because he can be useful in keeping Bashar under check.”